Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Elizabethan Gardening Craze

by M.M. Bennetts

We tend to associate the Tudors with lots of things--most of them of the bloody, messy, power-struggle variety. Which is not necessarily an inaccurate picture. But it's only a fragment of the tapestry that was 16th century England.

Because what we don't necessarily consider when thinking about the Tudors is that they--for all their many wives and/or courtiers falling in and out of favour--gave England something it had not had for centuries: domestic peace and tranquillity.

Yes, there were the uprisings against Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, and there was Northumberland's attempt to seize power and the crown with an army (which famously melted away) from Mary...but for the most part the country was rebellion-free and troop-free. And this long period of peace gave rise to all sorts of growth.

There were fewer than 3 million people living in England in 1500. But that figure had nearly doubled by 1650, to 5.25 million.

Then too, in 1520, the Church owned roughly 1/6 of the kingdom. By 1558 when Elizabeth ascended the throne--roughly twenty years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries--3/4 of that land had been sold off, primarily into the hands of the gentry and increasingly monied middle class. And this substantial change in land ownership brought with it equally substantial shifts in political, cultural and economic power within the kingdom.

Translated into plain English, there was now a land-owning gentry and burgeoning middle class who found themselves able to spend more of their resources on pleasures and comforts, rather than on self-defence and necessities as they previously would have done.

So rather than the conversation between husband and wife that went something like, "I see York is getting resty. I think we really should build another defensive tower and a moat..." the conversation now could go something like, "Hmn, I fancy having a garden over on the south side of the house. With a rose pergola. What about you?"

And this shift in attitude was most particularly true of the second half of the century, during the reign of Elizabeth I.

For just as this forty-five year period of domestic tranquillity saw a flowering of the arts, of music and literature, so too, gardening. And it wasn't just gardening for the aristocratic few. For in this latter half of the 16th century the English really came into their own as gardeners and plant collectors. It was, without question, the first English gardening craze. (It's been going on ever since.)

They had the disposable income, they had the time, they weren't worried about marauding armies, they had the estates, and their international trade and exploration was bringing back seeds and cuttings from the farthest reaches of the globe, daily expanding the already wide variety of plants available.

And within this culture of burgeoning energy and self-confidence, the garden becomes a symbol of the nation's flowering under Elizabeth's stewardship. Flowers were everywhere in her reign. They were her symbols.
And this was the time too that the garden began to take on a distinctly modern flavour.

Whereas initially, most gardens and plant collecting had been directed toward the herbal and medicinal arts, now flowers were valued for pleasure's sake alone--for their intrinsic beauty, for their scents, for their rarity...and the pleasure garden became an element of Elizabethan status.

Always the gardens of the period were walled or enclosed in some way--by walls, hedges, fences or even moats--and generally built off the house, often accessible only from the family's main room or parlour.

Enclosing the space ensured a measure of protection from wild animals (hungry deer) or thieves, but it also protected the plants from prevailing winds and provide a warmer microclimate. Then too, in plans of Elizabethan manor houses, one will occasionally find several unconnected walled gardens leading off from the different rooms in the house--some for pleasure, others for the medicinal herbs or vegetables, still others with their walls covered in espaliered apples, figs and pear...

Also, Elizabethan gardens were always laid out formally, geometrically designed and as often as not symmetrically, with knot gardens being the most common feature of the late 16th century garden. Indeed, one could rightly call the knot garden a very English passion. (They were little known in France or Italy.)

Knots (yes, the name is taken from the knots one makes with string or rope) were made up of square or rectangular patterns created by the use of one of more different types of plant, usually clipped box or santolina. The lines of the knot were interlaced so that they appeared to weave in and out of each other, with greater or lesser complexity. Often, the beds were then filled with sand or grass or gravel of different colours to emphasise the overall pattern of the knot--especially when viewed from an overlooking window or gallery. Sometimes too the enclosed beds contained flowers--clove pinks were a favourite choice.

From the outset of this Elizabethan horticultural boom, London was the centre of taste and innovation. For as well as being the centre of all financial and economic activity, London's citizens had the education, knowledge and the European contacts to indulge in this growing demand for garden innovation and exotica. (Middle class London houses of the period had attached gardens.)

It was from London's nurserymen, and via their contacts in Vienna, Italy, France and the Netherlands, that the population ordered their seeds and cuttings. In 1604, if one wanted a pair of garden shears, one ordered them from London. The wealthy Banbury family traded in seeds and plants at Tothill Street in Westminster from probably 1550 to 1650...

And the newly discovered species continued to pour in from all over the globe. African marigolds from Mexico, apples and pear and apricot trees from France and the Netherlands. Clematis viticella from Italy. Oriental planes from Persia. By the 1570s, there were tulips, daffodils and hyacinths from Turkey--arriving via the circuitous route of Vienna and the Brabant. All of which expanded the already large variety of imported plants and seeds available: Madonna lilies, lupins, snowdrops, cyclamen, hollyhocks, lily of the valley, peonies, ranunculi, anemones, polyanthus...

The list was enormous and is quite unlike the monochromatic green palette to which we imagine Elizabethan gardeners were limited.

Yet perhaps the most surprising of the horticultural innovations of the period was the demand for fruit and vegetables--given that contemporary medicine was adamant in proclaiming that eating vegetables was dangerous and resulted in melancholia and bodily flatulence.

As early as the previous century, there had been those who'd praised the virtues of veg. But just as the list of available flowers grew yearly, so too did the list of vegetables available for cultivation--artichokes, cucumbers, lettuce, parsnip, endive, leek, cress, cabbage, rocket, turnips...

Fruit-growing too had long been popular and even the poorest in the land had had access to apples. For those with more money, figs, pears, plums and cherries were a regular part of the diet. But the gardeners of this period now consciously seek out better cultivars and a greater variety.

Sir John Thynne, when obsessing about his garden at Longleat, wrote to his steward to "send me word how my cherry stones, abrycocks, and plum stones that I brought out of France do grow." Equally, Sir Phillip Sidney ordered cherry and quince trees from Brabant for his orchard at Penshurst. Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury, (a passionate gardener and plant collector) sent John Tradescant the Elder to travel in the Netherlands and France to buy fruit trees for Hatfield.

(Interestingly too, it's here that one can see the Elizabethan concept of gender differentiation--the flower and kitchen gardens are the province of the women; the orchards are for men. John Tradescant the Elder was paid £50 per annum for the job of laying out the garden at Hatfield House; the Earl of Leicester paid his head gardener £20 per annum; yet weeders--who were always female--were paid threepence a day.)

Into this market of enthusiastic and energetic gardeners and plant-collectors, jobbing writer and journalist (and sometime astrologer) Thomas Hill launched the first gardening book ever written. Before his work, there had been herballs, yes. But they were nothing like The Gardener's Labyrinth, first published in 1577, which he wrote under the pseudonym of Didymus Mountaine.

For The Gardener's Labyrinth was the first practical hands-on how-to gardening manual, and every page is suffused with the infectious pleasure Hill obviously took in gardening himself. The book was a runaway best-seller and a new edition was published the following year, with four more editions published over the next 75 years.

And while Hill borrowed heavily (some might think annoyingly) from classical writers like Pliny, Palladius and Cato, and he cobbled together bits that he'd obviously garnered from other sources, and even though he often strayed into astrology or his theory that the germination of seeds is governed, like the tides, by the phases of the moon and his pest control remedies read like witches' brew. Still, at the same time, in his work, there is this genuine love of getting his hands into the soil, there are diagrams for laying out a knot, there's his advice on how to blanch vegetables, on keeping the beds well-dunged, advice on how to water, how to build a rose arch or how to lay a fast-growing rosemary hedge, how to ensure a regular supply of fresh herbs, all of which still hold true today...

And all of it was written in this engaging conversational tone--quite unlike that used by his contemporaries--it's the voice of a practicing down-to-earth garden writer--a Geoff Hamilton, an Alan Titchmarsh or the much-missed Jim Wilson.

It was Hill too who summed up the gardening spirit of the age: "The life of man in this world is but thraldom, when the Sences are not pleased and what rarer object can there be on earth...than a beautifull and Odoriferous Garden plot Artificially composed, where he may read and contemplate on the wonderfull works of the great Creator, in Plants and Flowers; for if he observeth with a judicial eye, and serious judgement their variety of Colours, Sents, Beauty, Shapes, Interlacings, Enamilling, Mixture, Turnings, Windings, Embossments, Operations and Vertues, it is most admirable to behold and mediate upon the same."

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.


  1. Wow, what an interesting post.
    What is also fascinating is how few people lived in England at that time - a fraction of the current population of London. It must have been wonderful!
    The idea of a knot garden - all those intricate designs - for me is a bit like a nightmare, a bit like being asked to count all the blades of grass on a football pitch. Too much detail! Give me hedgerows any day!
    Gracce x

  2. I don't believe I could manage a knot garden either, though I do enjoy them.

    (They take hundreds of box plants--planted at four inch intervals--you're out there on your knees with the ruler for days! And then there's the clipping each May. Very labour-intensive.)

    But glad you enjoyed it...MM

  3. Great article, MM! Makes me want to get out there and start planting.

  4. Superb article! With the history of the rise of gardening interests -- a result of peace, and a reason to be not so dismayed at the outcome of the Dissolution. I suspect that all that land going into private hands greatly increased the Crown's tax opportunities, and lowered the rate of individual taxation of landowners so they did have a bit more to spend, and to invest in business and trade. I'd never looked at it that way before.

    And we are still swept along with the wonders of botanical discoveries made in the 16th and 17th centuries. I do like those African marigolds from Mexico; a bit like the turkeys from New England, or for that matter a hemisphere of Indian people a long way from India. What's in a name?

  5. What a wonderful post. I highly recommend Trea Martyn's book, 'Queen Elizabeth In The Garden' as well for anyone who enjoys learning more about Elizabethan gardens.

  6. I simply loved this article! Thanks so much!

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